We should seek to be unbiased—that doesn’t mean being neutral
The recent fake news and false balance problems may have both been products of society’s overemphasis on neutrality
The tremendous spike in fake news during the election was one of the most contentious and discussed issues of the past few weeks. At the center of the debate was Facebook, which made the decision to largely allow fake news to spread across its platform. Allegedly, this was not because they lacked the capability to curb it — rather, they were scared of conservative backlash.
According to Gizmodo, one source who was close to the company’s decision-making said that Facebook had planned a News Feed update that would identify fake or hoax new stories, but did not release it due to fear that it would disproportionately impact right-wing websites and thus upset conservatives. The New York Times also reported that according to a number of Facebook employees, after receiving accusations earlier in the year that the team behind Facebook’s Trending Topics section was routinely suppressing links from conservative news sources, Facebook’s leadership was “paralyzed” and unwilling to “make any serious changes to its products that might compromise the perception of its objectivity.”
Meanwhile, news outlets have faced plentiful accusations of “false balance” or “false equivalence” in the way they covered the two major candidates during the presidential election. False balance historically refers to the practice where two sides of an issue are presented as having similar or equal credence, even though it’s clear that they’re unequal in terms of factuality or degree of support by the evidence. Thus, viewpoints that are backed up by little to no facts or evidence may be given the same weight in presentation, e.g. the amount of time they are allotted on air, as those grounded in sound logic and factual evidence.
False balance can also take other forms, such as when two events are presented as being evidence of a larger trend, even though it’s clear that one is a much stronger or severe example of that trend than the other.
During the election, these accusations were mainly levied towards the manner in which Trump and Clinton were covered. The Washington Post recently reported about a study that followed a number of major news outlets. The study showed that the outlets reported negative to positive stories about Clinton at an equal ratio as they did Trump, 87 percent negative vs. 13 percent positive. It seems that in order to appear balanced, they used Trump as a frame of reference for the way in which they reported about Clinton. The fact that Trump was embroiled in many scandals during the time period that the study drew its figures from, such as the tape where he boasted about sexually assault, led to them increasing negative coverage of Clinton to match that. Furthermore, the article notes that there were many instances where outlets falsely equivocated a major violation by Trump with a minor one by Clinton. For example, USA Today ran an op-ed with the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” This made it appear as if threats that Trump and Clinton posed to free press were similar in severity, despite the fact that Trump clearly posted a much greater threat.
False equivalence was also prominently seen on a live primetime forum with Clinton and Trump back in September. NBC’s Matt Laurer was criticized for asking Trump easier questions during his interview compared to the ones he asked Clinton during hers, and for failing to fact-check Trump for false statements that he made during it. In this instance, Laurer caught flak for, among other things, being unfairly tougher on Clinton in an attempt to portray the two candidates as equal.
Fear of appearing biased against one side, typically conservatives in practice, is commonly thought to be a significant reason for why news outlets engage in false balance or equivalency.
These events are hardly unprecedented.
The alleged reason why Facebook allowed fake news to spread on its platform, and why news outlets falsely equivocated Trump and Clinton in their coverage — fear of appearing biased against conservatives — is hardly unprecedented.
Conservatives have long hurled accusations of “liberal bias” against news outlets for their own political self-interest. At times they do so because they genuinely believe that a particular outlet is demonstrating bias towards them, and perhaps in some of these cases they are right. However, there is little question that they often employ these accusations for other, more strategic reasons.
Most importantly, such accusations can allow them to influence media coverage into their favor. According to progressive-leaning wiki Rational Wiki, conservatives have a long history of accusing the media of liberal bias as a “method to discredit critics without having to disprove the point they make.” This functions as an ad hominem attack; terms such as “liberal bias” or the “liberal media” have derogatory meaning among conservatives. If a person or an organization is associated with such terms, then they are often instantly viewed with distrust and suspicion in their eyes. Because many media organizations feel the need to appear neutral or “balanced”, they may shift their coverage to the right in order to avoid these accusations. Former RNC head Rich Bond confirmed this sentiment: “There is some strategy to it [bashing the ‘liberal’ media]…. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”
Indeed, this is a strategy that has historically proven to be a success. A commonly noted example was the past debate between man-made climate change (supported by liberals) and natural climate change (supported by conservatives). In news coverage, positions that denied its existence were given the same credence and airtime as those that affirmed it, despite the fact that 97 percent of scientists with expertise on climate and atmosphere believe in a link between human behavior and climate change.
We should seek to be unbiased. But, being unbiased ≠ being neutral
The trend of media (or other) organizations pursuing neutrality to avoid accusations of bias is a dangerous one, potentially leading to a greatly misinformed public, and in the case of fake news, inching us closer to a post-truth society than ever.
There are many things we need to do to reverse this trend. But I believe that two critical steps that those that care about truth and accurate presentation must take are on the broader, conceptual level. These are not only steps that the media ought to take, but also the general public.
First, both the media and the public must clarify their definitions. Right now, there is much confusion over the meaning of certain terms, which people can and have deliberately exploited (via conflation and false equivalence) to their advantage.
Most glaringly, being unbiased and being neutral have been falsely equivocated. Nowadays, many in the media and the general populace think that to be unbiased, they must be completely neutral in judgment — that is, they must treat all perspectives about a particular issue with equal weight, and present them as such. It doesn’t matter if the perspective is fallacious, e.g. backed by little fact or evidence, or logically unsound — that perspective is given the same weight (treatment as a serious argument, airtime, etc.) as factual and sound perspectives.
As a result, issues such as man-made vs. natural climate change, and the alleged link between vaccines and autism, were presented by the media as hotly debated, despite the fact that the scientific evidence clearly points to one side being true (climate change has proven links to man-made behavior, and vaccines have no link to autism). This has led to real, serious harms to people.
This practice has extended to the general public. In both debate in-person and on various channels of the Internet, I have witnessed instances where people were accused of bias simply for having an opinion on a matter, before they were even questioned about the reasoning behind their belief.
This is not what being unbiased should mean. Being unbiased should refer to the process taken to reach the truth or the most accurate conclusion regarding a particular issue: you take into account all of the facts, conditions, and evidence with a comprehensive and open mind; you carefully examine and analyze them, and you do not omit any because of your personal feelings or stance on the issue.
Bias on the other hand, should mean when you undercut/stray away from this process, i.e. examining and analyzing the facts in a distorted manner, such as omitting to take into account some of them that don’t align with your preferred conclusion, etc..
Being unbiased however, does not preclude drawing conclusions based on the evidence. If the evidence clearly points to one side of the argument as aligning closest to the truth, it is fine, and perhaps morally obligatory, to present it as such.
Second, building on this, the media and the public should clarify and re-align their objectives. Being unbiased, and not necessarily neutral, should be the goal.
It is widely thought that the goal of serious journalism is to bring the truth to the public — neutrality can be an obstacle in this pursuit. As CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour remarked on a recent interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: “So I now say truthful, not neutral. There is a difference here. Truthful is bringing the truth. Neutral can be creating a false equivalence between this side and that….And the truth is actually there. You can find the truth. And there are facts, and there are figures. And there are other things. And you can’t conflate the two.”
Now, when pursuing the truth, it is imperative for them to be unbiased in their consideration of the evidence. But if and once they find the truth, or if they find that a certain perspective is closer to the truth than the others, they should present it as such — not downplay it.
The public also needs to be careful — we should seek to be unbiased and not necessarily neutral. We should be careful not to mix up the two concepts, and that includes in our everyday language usage. When we acknowledge that we ourselves, or others, are “biased” on a particular issue or even in general, that should refer to the process by which we came to our opinion, not merely the fact that we have an opinion that is considered to be part of particular ideology.
For example, if the fact that someone is a liberal led him to overlook evidence that disfavored the liberal position on the issue in question, it would be fine to say that he has “liberal bias” on the particular issue. But if he came to his opinion by fairly and comprehensively considering all of the evidence, and that opinion is consistent with liberal thought, he should not be characterized as having “liberal bias” on that issue.
I believe that this is an important distinction — saying that someone is biased can lead others to not take their opinion as seriously. We should thus be careful in how and when we apply the term.
A key foundation
There are many more steps we need to take beyond this. Certain segments of the population really do not seem to not care about the truth. On a practical level, it may be difficult for news outlets to change their practices, due to factors such as corporate influence. And on the fake news front, there are obstacles that could complicate any attempt that Facebook makes to curb it.
But, all of these problems could be tackled more effectively if we get on the same page philosophically. Clarifying the confusion that exists on the definitional and conceptual levels would be a big step in this regard.